One-sixteenth of an inch isn’t much by most standards, but for George Guy Sr., it was the difference between staying home or going to war. Guy missed the Army’s height limit of 6’6” by 1/16th of an inch in 1968. He ended up taking part in the Tet Offensive and in the Battle of Hamburger Hill as part of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. After a career as a civil engineer in the northern United States, Guy retired to Micanopy and now helps counsel veterans from all wars at the VA Hospital in Gainesville. Our conversation took place August 17, 2017, at the University of Florida’s Innovation News Center.
My name is George Vernon Guy, Sr. My birth place is New York, New York. I was born January 14, 1948.
So when did you move to this area, and how long have you lived here?
I’ve lived in the Alachua County area — specifically, I made my home in Micanopy, Florida, in 1996.
What brought you down here?
After I retired from Turner Construction Company in New York and managing huge construction projects, mainly hospital construction, I retired and I found that the Veterans Administration Hospital here was one of the best, and I was building on my house for the future anyway and my mother was born and raised in Micanopy, Florida.
What is your educational background?
I’m a civil engineer. My bachelor’s in science is from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. I hold a masters and doctorate degree from a University of St. Louis and I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the name now, it’s been so long, but anyway, I hold those legitimate degrees, too, but over 48 years of experience.
Can you tell us when you first remember hearing about Vietnam and about how old were you when that happened?
Well, the Huntley-Brinkley Report reported the news of the Vietnam War as did the late President Kennedy when I was in high school, and I graduated from high school in 1966. And the war in Vietnam was hot and heavy between ‘66 and ‘69. I served from ‘68 to ‘69, which was the worst part of the war.
Were you drafted or did you volunteer?
I was drafted out of college.
When you were drafted — I assume into the Army — did you ever think of joining another armed force in lieu of joining the Army?
No, at the time I was drafted, I didn’t worry about it because there was a height limit of 6’6” and I played basketball in college and I was listed as 6’6”. So, I was drafted out of Brooklyn and they measured me — and I had a huge afro — and they measured me about 9 or 10 times and I got under 6’6” by 1/16th of an inch.
So 1/16th of an inch is the difference between you serving and you not serving at that point?
How did you feel about that?
Very, very bad about it, extremely bitter and angry, and the reason why is because I didn’t have any clothes to fit me while in the service in basic training in South Carolina. I only had basic fatigue pants and shirts, and I didn’t have any dress uniforms because I had a skinny neck and very long arms.
You mentioned your mom earlier, how did your parents feel about your military, you joining the military, or you being drafted into the military?
They were very bitter because I received a draft notice on my mother’s birthday, January 11th of 1968.
Had your family served at any particular point or had they served at the World War II level even?
My father served in World War II in what he called the “Colored Army.” He was a motor pool sergeant and he fixed trucks and he was wounded in action and he received a Purple Heart, but he became an alcoholic based on pain medication.
So, dealing post-war, either dealing with it or dealing with something that happened in war obviously affected your father?
Yes, it did. Yes, it did.
Did that give you any pause about when you went off to war, about how you saw your father go through and come back and how you might be affected?
Yes, it did. I was affected because many of my family sort of disowned me and labeled me crazy for my experiences, looking at the Huntley-Brinkley Report and what my unit did in the war and it frightened them and terrified them. So, I basically went underground and didn’t talk about nothing to no one.
Did you know anybody in your family or friends that chose to purposely not serve or to avoid the draft?
How did that make you feel? Did you ever consider not serving?
Yes, yes, I actually, after I had finished AIT training at Fort Polk, which was advanced infantry training. I went home for leave. I decided to not show up at Seattle, Washington to go to Vietnam, but I got caught. I was pretty stupid. The only ID I had was military, so in Canada… above Niagara Falls, I had to show my ID and they just put me on the bus and then we went on a plane and I went to Vietnam.
Where did you end up in Vietnam and what year was this? What was your first experience in country or in theater?
Well since I didn’t come with my unit, I came in at Cam Rahn Bay, which is beautiful, a white sand a pretty sand or what have you and riding around and hearing throughout the night and the heat — 125 degrees in the shade. It was extremely hot for me being a native New Yorker, so it was just overwhelming heat but very, very pretty. I couldn’t figure out why people were, mainly Air Force, driving around saying short 10 minutes, short five minutes, short 30 secs and short 1 day and I couldn’t figure out what they were doing and I didn’t know what they meant. And I asked one person from the Air Force, what do you mean by short 10 minutes. I’m only in the country 10 minutes, *laughter*, and I’m going back to the world and of course we called the United States the world back in those days. I said, “Wow, I’ve got 365.” So, I laughed to myself and I just shook my head and say to myself, “There’s just no way I’m out of it.” And then we went to Bien Hoa where we did additional training, jungle training for the 101st Airborne Division, to which I was attached, and I had to do some additional training, which I was not trained stateside to do. My job was a radio telephone operator. I just imagined me carrying a radio on my back and the biggest target. So, I didn’t feel too good about that.
What were some of your first responsibilities? You said that they did additional training so what were some of your first responsibilities when you got in theater?
Well, being as tall as I was going through trails that were very, very, very small and skinny, not made for a tall man at all, understanding and recognizing booby traps. Okay and in walking, you have to identify that, and of course with the explosives, the snakes and the punji sticks and what have you – we went through all of that additional training in Bien Hoa and then before we were assigned to our final unit.
So you mentioned you landed and it looked rather beautiful but very hot obviously maybe a different experience than what you’d grown up with in New York. So, what was your first interaction with I guess the enemy kind of a disconnect. You’re in this country, what’s your first interaction with the enemy like, when did that first come about?
Well through our training in country in Bien Hoa, which was the home of the 101st Airborne for training purposes and we were all down in the South Vietnam area. The fact of the matter is that war was as we were trained for it at Fort Polk. We actually went through how to go through a village and look for the enemy because this was a different type of war. This was a counter-insurgency type of war. So, what that meant was potentially when we went through a village, the enemy could be one of the persons that we gave food to, or we lent a hand to, and little kids as well. So, in essence, the enemy was mixed or assimilated with the citizens. So, it was very, very, very difficult as — in the infantry to tell the difference as it is today in today’s war. So, it’s identical to that. The fact of the matter is the people, the Vietnamese people did not want us there, at all, and we didn’t speak the language either. I speak for myself, however, certain people in my group and many other groups did some horrible things to some ordinary citizens, but everyone wasn’t necessarily an ordinary citizen. And we called the enemy “Charlie.” Charlie, he could integrate. He could be a woman, it could be a man, it could be a kid, it could be a baby and they could have gotten a hold of ammunition or a weapon and can shoot you — not mistakenly, but purposely and the enemy would come after we left, see. And they would rape the women for instance and stuff like that. So, it was very, very, very difficult to tell who the enemy was.
Mentally, that must be very, very hard and I imagine it is for these counter-insurgencies that are going on right now. But not knowing who the enemy and who your ally is, or who is an innocent and who isn’t. It must be very tough going through a war like situation or a war situation not knowing who is a defined enemy as usually our military is used to dealing with a defined enemy?
That’s the scaredest I’ve ever been and it’ll probably be the scaredest I’ll ever be in my life.
Correct and this was the first war where we didn’t have that clear identification. However prior learning about the history of Vietnam and other countries that attempted to —were at war with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people mainly the North. They didn’t succeed because of this counter-insurgency before either so it just made us — we tried to fight a conventional type of war by giving the enemy all we had, and firepower, and we were winning the war. Most people don’t know we were winning the war from 1968 after the Tet Offensive, in which every American base in South Vietnam was hit by the enemy. That’s the scaredest I’ve ever been and it’ll probably be the scaredest I’ll ever be in my life. However, what we ca back with from February through May of 1969 we were winning the war and our bombers were bombing all of North Vietnam. However, the former President Nixon stopped the bombing, and he wanted to integrate American manufacturing with the Chinese and have the relationship that the U.S. currently holds or has with the Chinese now, mainly with manufacturing because they wanted clean air in the United states and that was the downfall economically of the factories and ‘Made in America’ stuff.
So, you say at the time that America was winning, is there a particular moment that triggered — you say former President Nixon — to change his philosophy, change his directive in the war?
Yes, he had to make a compromise because fellow Americans were totally against the war. They were totally against the body count being told on the media, the Huntley Brinkley report, how many US persons were killed in action and this was the longest war in our history at the time. It was all negative, but the protesting here in America was out of control, specifically out of control. And then we returned, many of us were called out of our names, such as murderers, OK? Jane Fonda, for instance, who won many awards as an actress okay the enemy used her as propaganda against we, as Americans, received those fliers — often from the enemy.
You mention some of the places or some of the things that you were involved in. You said you were involved in the Tet Offensive you also mentioned Hamburger Hill can you explain those particular instances and as far as your experience with it? You don’t have to go into too much but just what you were involved in, in your time in the war?
Well, the Tet Offensive came in December of 1968, in which, as I mentioned before generally speaking, every American base camp was hit by the enemy with what we called 122 Mickey Mouse or (122mm) rounds, rockets and we were stalled for three days, three days. We couldn’t fire out against the enemy back. So, they had us. They had us. They thought they had us, but then we came back. We came back. And then our bombers, our B-52 bombers which flew so high that you couldn’t see them, you could only hear them okay and the bombs just started. And we knew through intelligence where the bombing through the Tet Offensive came from. It came from North Vietnam, okay. So, we bombed and bombed from February 1969 through I think it was September of ’69 — just constantly bombing. And the people here in America turned against us that were actually fighting in the war and the attention politically, wanted this war to stop or to end and get America out of that place. So, our fellow Americans turned and turned against us, the ones that were fighting, actually.
What happened at Hamburger Hill, that’s the name of a movie, basically. The hill number and where the province was, was very significant. The Marine Corps in 1967 attempted to take over this hill and the valley which was in North Vietnam and they did not succeed. They lost a lot. There were many killed in action. The 1st Calvary that was stationed, their base camp was in Camp Evans, which we eventually took over, the 101st. They attempted and they lost a lot also in 1967. So, this was a stronghold that could topple the war. Period. So, in May of 1969, the whole 3rd Brigade went up the hill and fought against actual conventional warfare against the stronghold enemy the North Vietnamese troops, which were dug in. They were at the top of the hill and we were at the bottom coming up the hill. What went wrong was the fact that our gunships and our backup artillery killed most of us coming up the hill. That was tragic, it was a lot — when we kill ourselves, it’s called friendly fire. So, while we took the hill and there were a lot of enemies killed in action, many Americans died, too, and that was three major companies out of the Third Brigade and you can’t ever recover that again. The fact of the matter is this was the first time in the Vietnam War history that we took a major, major enemy stronghold that close to North Vietnam. It was actually in North Vietnam. We could see over North Vietnam. So, this was their stronghold to defend their country North Vietnam, where all of the legitimacy of troops and the war went on. After that, just after that, we were landing C-130s, C-120s cargo planes in the valley and dropping food and supplies for many of the people there. But then in 1971, ‘72, ‘73, the enemy took it back. So, all of those lives were lost for nothing because amidst the controversy politically here in America the American people and the president of the United States wanted to end this war.
You mention you were part of the 101st Airborne Division, for those folks who don’t understand the significance of that division and how celebrated it is and how important it is to the military, can you describe a little bit of the history or the nature of the division you were a part of?
Well the 101st Airborne Division was established from World War II to World War II and what came out of it was a victory in World War II and World War I as the 101st has a statement they make, “Rendezvous with Destiny,” and that came specifically from World War II. Previously, the 101st Airborne Division was the first division to — and the longest division to stay in Afghanistan. And they’ve been now fighting for the last 20 years abroad and winning, of course. And they’re just coming back now from Africa, many countries in Africa with the unrest. But the 101st Airborne Division became airborne — air mobile — which is unique. Out of that came a very, very powerful troop carrier called Shinook and the medivacs. And medivacs at the time were — could carry during the Vietnam War, four injured soldiers, as opposed to the Marine Corps that had none. They actually had three-wheelers and they were very, very slow and very ineffective, so the Air Force would evacuate their wounded. But what people don’t realize is when people are wounded in action back in those days, getting the person out under enemy fire and the terrain being jungle, we had to clear what we call an LZ, a landing zone, for a chopper to come down and of course, they had to be escorted. Even though the cross was on the side, painted on the side, the enemy didn’t care. They’d still shoot it down. So, many persons during the Vietnam War were aided very easily by the courageous pilots that flew so many sorties or missions and served many of the lives and I don’t think many people knew that. But what came out of the Vietnam War from the medics was the PA, the physician’s assistants. Because the medics during the Vietnam War saved so many lives and they had an enormous amount of field experience in healthcare, in emergency healthcare. They saved a lot of lives, as well as most infantrymen. Because the infantrymen — we had to transport those persons. I called for the medic on the radio and they would come escorted by a gunship often, or two, or three, as it is today. But the medivacs today can carry more and they’re a lot more sophisticated with the nurses.
You mentioned a number of, I guess, the interaction or the information that folks back home had about the war and had that turned the tide here about how people felt about it. Did you have any interaction with journalists in, I guess, the field or related to Vietnam in any way, shape, or form there reporting or when you came home?
No, it was too dangerous at the time, extremely dangerous, being out in the field. The biggest danger was the fact that often we’d stay out in the field pretty much unprotected for several days. So, if they didn’t carry weapons, it was too dangerous like it is today. So, no, we didn’t have it. Although the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported a lot. But we didn’t get the newspaper that often. Mail caught up with us maybe every four months. We didn’t get mail that often either.
So, how familiar were you with what was going on back in the United States while you were in Vietnam?
I was not familiar, I was not.
So, none of the anti-war stuff, any of that stuff, you weren’t familiar?
Now only by the propaganda by Jane Fonda, no. Other than that propaganda, no. Did not have access to newspapers, television, radio, none of that stuff, no.
So, being isolated somewhat from home and being in a foreign country —
Not somewhat — Totally isolated.
Hear more stories from this series, “Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans”
Did anything shock or surprise you when you were in country?
Anything in particular?
Don’t feel like speaking about it?
You don’t have to get too deep — anything that you feel comfortable speaking about?
Yes. We were scheduled to come into Oakland, California to be, well, I had to be de-programmed and what have you for security purposes. I had a lot of stuff in my brain. But at any rate, and of course they didn’t — they asked us a few questions — how you felt, do you feel like hurting yourself, or killing yourself. And then they give you a bundle of money, give you a brand new uniform and said, “See ya.” So, me and my buddy, he was going to Chicago, south side of Chicago, and I was going to New York, so we flew out of — we got airline tickets in San Francisco. And while being dropped off at the San Francisco airport, we noted there were a bunch of protesters there. We smelled coffee, which we had not had a cup of coffee in over a year, so we said, let’s get a cup of coffee and you know a bagel, and — typical New Yorker — some cream cheese and whatever and a little jam on that and something we hadn’t had. And we’re just sitting there drinking coffee and admiring the beautiful American women which we had not seen. We hadn’t seen American women, no. So, then the protesters came close to us and they saw we were from the 101st Airborne Division, our blouse, boots, and stuff like that and they circled around us and they spat on us and we tore that place up. So, that was our welcome home, which was really not a welcome home. But it didn’t get any better. I flew into, at the time, into Kennedy Airport in New York. I was raised, lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn in a really, really rough area and trying to get a cab home. They refused to take me there, to that area, because they were scared that they would be robbed or killed. So, I had to take the subway home with my duffle bag and walked several blocks. So, that wasn’t too nice.
My father gives me a similar story when he returned. Did you feel differently about returning to your country? Did you feel differently about yourself? What had changed in you, and maybe not necessarily how war affected you, but how coming back to a country after fighting, how did it change your opinion of your country?
Well, the racism was very, very, very thick and I felt empowered. Look, I served in a capacity that most people couldn’t, and I felt like you should honor me. Don’t throw me under the bus. Well, I had two things, going against me. I was African American, I’m still African American and people did not see the same deal. Although, in New York City, people didn’t generally, choose that way. When I took training in the South, however, people did not think much of African Americans. And I felt, wow, why do you feel that way, like I’m a second-class citizen and much of the violence that happened last weekend in Virginia reminds me of the time when I was drafted in service and the hatred you know.
And you mentioned prior to turning on the microphones that there was two very different kind of experiences in the trenches and a lot of it was based around race. How drastic or how different were those experiences in your opinion?
Well, in Vietnam, we African Americans and Latinos, and Asian — minorities — we stuck together. We stuck together because it was very few of us out in the trenches, however in comparison. So, the fact of the matter is we united. I know we, as African Americans, we united and we wore black shoelaces and we weaved a necklace, which you see certain people wear today, but they don’t know the origin from which that came. It came from the African Americans uniting together in solidarity for us. And what came with us that people don’t realize and the former President Obama didn’t realize that the pound and the pounding each other’s hands and the booty wap, that was done in solidarity that we stick together. They’re very, very, very few living African Americans that fought as grunts. So, many people don’t realize what’s missing. So what happened was, most African Americans that still remember, we bonded together and we wore as a sign of solidarity, even our Latino brothers, our Asian brothers, we wore the shoelaces form our jungle boots and we weaved them together and we welded them together so that it would be a permanent reminder even when we returned to the United States. And I wore mine for almost 15 years and it fell off and I gave it to one of my good buddies who still has his. But many people don’t know that origin today and I still see people wearing — there’s something black around — that’s similar. And I said do you know the origin of that and they don’t really know. But if you haven’t been there — we had to do that because — and then our white brothers and sisters — we shared with them the pound too, and that solidarity.
And in the 1968 Olympics, three African Americans, John Carlos was one of them, we had the pound and the fist up they got from Vietnam and the vets of Vietnam, actually the soldiers, the black soldiers. So, what we did there to stay alive was to stick together and that solidarity got us through because we were not all on the same page, and if we were asked to do some things that were ridiculous — and in the Armed Forces, you have a contract and you have to take order, regardless of what you think they are, or you can’t go against them or you end up in jail. And jail was in Long Ben, Vietnam, and there were many people serving there for not following orders as well. So, at the time, we didn’t want to go to jail because now when you go to jail, you serve your jail sentence as a court martial, plus you’ve got to stay on to finish your tour. So you would be there longer. So, we just stuck together. So, if they asked us to go out in the middle of the night to look for the enemy, we wouldn’t go. No. We stuck together. So, he would shoot us all. But that was black solidarity, which most people don’t know about.
You mentioned something about there’s not many African Americans here today that survived that and can bring that on. Were they overwhelmingly killed in action, or were they not as well represented in the military at that time, a combination of the two?
No, no. I spoke of it earlier. For pain medication, many were given morphine and got hooked on morphine. Sometimes a patient might stay out in the field five or six days, maybe, and they’re on medication and they’re bleeding and they stopped the bleeding and they’re hooked, like many of our troops today are hooked on opiates. We could see in South Vietnam the poppy plants, the same that you see many of our troops see in Afghanistan, too. So, many of our African Americans in the field were hooked when they returned from Vietnam to the world on heroin — excuse me — the closest thing to heroin in America. So many of my buddies that I served with from New York City, many of them died of AIDS because they had bad needles. They didn’t die because of homosexuality or sex. They died because of bad needles and the VA refused to give them any kind of care and they were just out there and that was the dreadful disease back in those days. And then of course, the Agent Orange cancers killed a lot of us long before the Armed Forces and the United States of America bit the bullet and said, yeah, we were responsible. So, many veterans, mainly African Americans died of those two diseases.
So, when you came back — and you talk about some of the unfortunate issues that carried over from war and home with many soldiers. What was your experience with the services provided in the VA available to returning veterans and how did you utilize those services or get involved with them? You mentioned that the VA is kind of what brought you back here, but what was your interaction with them, were the services adequate? I think I get the vibe that — no.
No, they were not. They were not close, not in New York City and there was no welcome home. Not even from family. I guess that’s the most despicable thing in coming back. My mother said that I slept for three days nonstop without even eating. And then, I had those stay awake pills because I as the CQ, which is the charge of quarters on the radio, if you get orders for the next day. I had to stay awake for a minimum of 72 hours minimum. Of course, in the service today they still take the same pills to stay awake of enemy flying nights and night missions and stuff like that. It’s the same stuff today. But the biggest problem was my family. They were just numb. They said nothing to me, they didn’t really welcome me or nothing. Which was pretty typical of the African American in your big metropolises, especially in New York City where many, many were drafted. In Chicago, my buddy, he got the same treatment in the African American community. Family members being numbed, they just called us crazy. That’s basically it, so we went underground. We said nothing, did nothing. But the VA did nothing, either. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
So, you served three years?
Two. Two active and four years inactive.
And that was the requirement of the draft at that time?
That is correct.
You mentioned prior, the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. Were you familiar of the background or the mechanization to get that built? And you mentioned kind of, somewhat, of your feelings about it, but can you kind of express how you feel about it?
Well, yes. My oldest son, George, Jr. — I’m a poet. And I went to, attended a poetry final in which I won an award in Washington, DC. And he and his wife, Ina Ray, were there and they encouraged me to go see the wall and jot down my buddies that were killed in action. That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. That was the hardest thing, and it was extremely emotional. I don’t think I’ll go back. But with their help, they coached me through that. But I did need to do it to kind of set myself free.
You mentioned that there’s a very different perception today of the veterans who passed versus the veterans who are still among us.
Can you kind of elaborate a little bit more on that?
And then the questioning or the interrogation would start, which was very, very invasive and it was not respectful at all.
Well, the typical dogma from and trying to get a job in returning, I had great difficulty, like most Vietnam veterans from the human resources people, type of people. They were asking questions that were totally invasive, such as how many people did you kill of the enemy? Were you in the rear, were you… were you out there, hand-to-hand with the enemy. Well, they had no idea or perception of what we actually did and this type of counter-insurgency type of war we fought either. So, they were so ignorance and I would just walk out of the interview, basically because there was a lack of empathy, totally. I don’t know what answering the question of how many you killed made a difference in getting a job or being a requisite in a getting a job, period. So, if you put down in the information based on filling out an employment application, what did you do from this year to this year, well I was in the Armed Forces. And then the questioning or the interrogation would start, which was very, very invasive and it was not respectful at all. And no — lack of empathy, totally. And the interviewer would just smile and write down and after a consultation with their boss — ‘Sorry, this job has been taken.’
Do you feel it was just couched in more of a curiosity or more of an agenda to it when they asked you about your history in that particular way with no empathy?
It was a lot of ignorance, but mostly a lack of empathy from their superiors. They need to be trained to ask and to understand what this person went through or should have gone through in answering the question and put forth the qualifications of the job, not the history of the person applying for the position.
You mentioned in your initial email to us that you work with veterans here in town. Can you kind of elaborate how you got started in doing that and what you do?
Well, yes. I completed a program. I’m a member of the Holy Trinity Episcopal church here in Gainesville and have been for over 20 years but I completed, in 2009, education for the ministry, which was an online, really tough theological program for the ministry. And after that, my ambition was always to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church and to serve my fellow veterans at the VA hospital as a chaplain and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past eight years, close to nine years. So, I see patients on Sundays and helping them heal, coming from another combat veteran is more comforting to them because been there done it and the trust factor is there. This VA hospital, in the state of Florida, offers Holy Communion bedside, which I have, they can have, all denominations can have if they ask. But especially for the Episcopalians, they can offer that, well can receive that at this VA hospital only. So, it’s extremely beneficial but also healing to me to give back to my fellow veterans of all wars. Our World War II vets, when you listen to them and their plight and talking about PTSD and all like that, they have the same thing, the exact same thing.
The Vietnam veteran, however, is the silent or the lonely veteran that was never accepted by the American people, mainly because of the rhetoric or the ignorance.
The Vietnam veteran, however, is the silent or the lonely veteran that was never accepted by the American people, mainly because of the rhetoric or the ignorance. And the ignorance is that we, Vietnam veterans, lost the war. We did not lose the war. We deliberately fell on our sword, politically. We politically lost the war. But when I served in 1968 to ’69, we were winning the war and these are facts. So, having known that, I felt a lot better about my mission and my acceptance and my pride as an American. I still hold true that I am a very, very proud American, but I’m a Christian American, and I believe in helping all people regardless of what their ethnicity is because I was raised that way. I don’t look at people at being a different color or different ethnicity. And there’s only one race: The human race.
Do you find — you mentioned different experiences with different veterans, these younger, newer, veterans from these newer wars. Do they have a better go of it or are they better identifying some of the issues when they come back immediately than previous generations have?
No, exact same. Biggest one is family. Family, and the family’s embarrassment, once again, their ignorance. The family’s embarrassment of ignorance meaning, specifically, well, not my son, he doesn’t have TBI, which is traumatic brain injury. He doesn’t have PTSD. No, he doesn’t have that. Only you Vietnam veterans had that kind of stuff. That’s ignorance and it’s not true. They’re faced with the same thing, however, they’re getting more help. However, the suicide rate for returning veterans today is one suicide every 22 minutes.
Is there — in your opinion, in what you’re dealing with, is there a way to stem that? Is there an issue in the services or in the medical practices that is not identifying those folks who are in danger and preventing them from getting to that point?
No, that’s not the problem. The problem is trust in the psychological healing process and the ignorance of most people. Mental health issues, if you name them or put a name to them and accept them, the family’s embarrassed and that’s ignorance. There needs to be a lot more outreach. Now the VA does a pretty good job, but they’re doing all they can do. They depend mainly on the veteran coming in, but our veterans today, just like in the Vietnam War, we don’t come in because we don’t trust them. We don’t trust anyone because when you’re talking mental health issues, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. And you don’t want to go backwards and the medications that are offered today are a lot more sophisticated and they’re being used exclusively by our younger veterans. And it’s harmful to them because now they’re sharing medications, for which is very, very dangerous. And of course this suicide rate of our returning veterans today, one every 22 minutes, is the highest of any war veterans. So, the VA takes this very, very, very, very seriously and they have many, many hotlines for suicide, but when I see a patient in the hospital that gives me those signs — they want to harm themselves. And I’ve seen many, many — they’ll trust me, but they won’t trust many other people and that’s what we need, is to re-identify and get more chaplains, more doctors that are veterans. Give them the opportunity to go one-on-one with their fellow veterans. So, the trust factor would be limited, and actually known, and would be more proactive in getting our younger people. Because our younger people have served a lot more than most veterans. They’ve been serving one, two, three, sometimes five tours of war, which in itself is inhumane, inhumane. But yet, the voluntary Armed Forces today, permits this and even the weekend warriors and they have less benefits. And they served their time as well.
War does not help anybody, no one. No one comes back the same person. That’s the other big stigma. The person that left your household is not the same person that’s coming back. No, nowhere close. And identifying that person and that personality is where we clash, where the family clashes. Well, you didn’t do this before —and especially if you had children before, well, daddy you don’t remember me now? No. And they may be suffering from many different injuries that are only known to this type of war. And what puts — people don’t understand, it’s not a regular sleep there. The enemy hits you when you’re asleep. So, you have all of this noise going on during the night. And then when you get back to America, you’ve got the July 4th, you’ve got this carnival, and these explosions going on and off, which set off triggers. Triggers of the past and those awful experiences, which triggers other issues mentally. And people don’t really care, as long as their ego, their pride is met. They could care less and they laugh at a person going underneath the bed because of the noise and factors or whatever, emotionally, thi s returning veteran is suffering from and it’s just total ignorance. So, I believe, if it could happen, that fellow Americans, and especially family members — my oldest brother went to a session at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, and they still do, at the different clinics in the VA hospitals, they invite the family to go through this program to help understand what this returning veteran is going through and he’s not crazy. He’s not crazy. And that gets them out of the ignorance level and they put on the natural thing of empathy and they can empathize. But no one goes to these types of war, the counter-insurgency types of war that we went through, especially in Vietnam, there was no public toilet. There was no running water, there was none of that stuff. And if you had to pee or if you had to take a crap and someone was shooting at you, hey— you’ve got to bear it. That’s inhumane. Then you’re going to come to society where you actually have a flushing toilet, you’ve got to get used to.
You mentioned that you’re a poet. Did your poetry help you kind of cope with some of the things? Was it cathartic? Was it helpful to get some of your feelings about war and get you through times?
Yes, what I did and what I continue to do with my poetry and my writing — and the VA has helped me because they have a specific department in which — see writing about your trauma helps you heal, but being a poet, a poet writes, and a writer writes with enthusiasm and metaphors, metaphors mainly. So, if I say, penny, nickel, nickel, what does that mean to you? Penny, nickel, nickel.
Two ways, I guess, it’s typical — it could be typical coinage. It could be 1-5-5, but I may not have the same obvious meaning as it does to you.
1-5-5 millimeters. That’s a round of ammunition. Whiskey popper, which is white phosphorous —which is totally against the Geneva Convention today — we used on human beings in the Vietnam War. Now saying that in a poem to another fellow veteran who’s been there and done it. So, my writings or my war poems, for instance, I take out all my pain in the writing. And I say phonetically, or identify phonetically my pain. And I say in a poem, like I’ve written before, awakening to the smell of penny, nickel, nickel whisky popper. So, the smell of that munition imploding is not waking up with eggs and bacon. That’s the smell. So, when I come back to a humane society and I smell the same thing, or a corpse, I’m for real. That’s my pain I’m reliving. But once I realize that was the there and then, this is the here and now, I understand that smell has nothing to do with that experience because I’m here now and sharing that with others and explaining my metaphor, which I used to do at Santa Fe College for an English class. The professor would invite me after he assigned the reading of my war poems and having the students figure out phonetically what all this metaphor meant and they were understandably emotionally taken aback once they heard what this was all about. And that’s the stuff that you don’t see on television, you don’t hear about, or even written because there’s so few of us that served that came home that succeeded to tell the story or certain stories. So, that’s most important.
Is there anything that I haven’t talked about that you would like to add or talk about?
The only thing is the fact that there were two wars, in my opinion, being an African American. There were two wars fought in Vietnam. There was a racial war. The late Martin Luther King, Dr. Martin Luther King, was assassinated, murdered during the Vietnam War. He was hated by many, for the lack of a better term, the American nationalist, Ku Klux Klansmen and stuff like that — haters. American haters. It transcended into the trenches. They brought that hate with them. So, during that murder, the dogma was amongst the troops was that he deserved, that is he — Martin Luther King, deserved to die because he was a Communist, and that was untrue. And that hatred transcended to we, fighting beside them. So, we were less than human and that was never brought up. The fact of the matter is, we got along because we were distant. We stayed to ourselves. We bumped buddy to buddy, we African Americans and minorities because we wanted to live and that is a very, very, very, very difficult way to survive wearing the same uniform and having come from the same country but being dogged by your fellow troopers. Some of them, not all of them, some of them. My Jewish brothers and sisters were torn at the same way we were by those some persons, nationalists, haters. I call them home-grown terrorists. The northern guys were hated by the southern guys, especially we New Yorkers. So, it was hate. I don’t believe that hate is around anymore like it used to be. Cleaned up the act. But having heard just recently what the current President of the United States is banning all new gay and lesbian serving veterans who have everything —they’re excellent troopers, excellent soldiers, excellent sailors — because of their lifestyle which has nothing to do with their job. I believe it’s wrong. All voluntary service, like it is today, with North Korea — big enemy — it scares me because in order to fight a new war, we don’t have the voluntary services we need. And that’s not been brought out. So, what would happen to politics once again is the draft would be enacted once again and that would be a lot of persons like myself going to war over controversy of two egos again, which is uncalled for, period. But I would still be supportive, however, of those that went if they had to go. But it’s just not right. And if you’re going to war and we’re all under the same American flag, we’ve got a problem as a nation. We have a problem. We can’t be winners together, not with that attitude, a one-sided attitude, and persons marching against the others. The only thing missing in that march last Saturday was the sheets over their heads. The torches that they carried was identical, and the message that they carry was still identical and it’s hatred, and racism, and killing for no reason whatsoever. You can voice your opinion without hurting people and having a name to hurt people. And why this United States of America currently, today, has a president — Americans voted for this president — I didn’t vote for him, but he’s still the president of the United States and I still respect that fact. However, the fact is, I’ve learned never to put anyone down. And putting down Muslims in America, putting down persons from other countries because of their faith is wrong. America didn’t become America the Beautiful by offering words like that, but more like the melting pot.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.